In every scene of this book, the characters are positioned within their earthly environments. And despite the fact that they are all souls traumatised by violence – either their own or others, or their bodies, or the collapsed post-capitalist world – this narrative positioning of their lives within a world that endlessly envelops them is a comfort. Because it’s our ultimate reality but not our current experience and it’s good to be reminded.
We don’t seem to collectively quite see ourselves as children of the earth yet, a positioning that has been our species’ main experience but one which we’ve only recent centuries been able to prodigally shake off as too much bother. We’re getting back there, though, don’t you think? We are, as Joni Mitchell implored, beginning to get “back to the garden” by force and necessity. Maybe once we stop referring to it as “the environment” will be a hearty indication that the earth’s stopper being an abstraction and instead puffed back around us again.
The characters we meet in The Rain Heron are all beaten and battle-worn, subsisting, some in the military that’s taken over this unnamed country, some trying to avoid them and eke out a sort of survival.
This could be bleak pandemic reading, with the USA on fire and its people being warred upon by its police state force as I write, and the political proponents of the status quo trying to stop the future from finally being born.
But this story, despite its bereftness and its bodily fluids and frozen nervous systems, is not bleak because the land is always here a character, and it weaves through all the happenings and tethers us as readers to the story’s home. Art shows us what we’re missing in a more holistic way than the best comprehensive climate change data cannot
Everything is alive and connected and pansychically active in this fable. Lightning licks trees; the wind uses its fangs to chew barns into splinters. Wounds spit pain, an injured arm is submerged in a creek for pain relief while “thick threads of pus swam away down the stream.”
The rain heron is a bird that comes from the clouds, its body so pale you can see through it. Some of the most beautiful passages of the book describe its movements:
“As if sensing her gaze, the bird launched itself from the tree, trailing rain from its talons. It twirled in the windless air, shaking ice and dew across the clearing and over Ren and her grandmother, drawing from them shivers and shrieks, before falling in a straight, fast dive into the tarn. It disappeared, but it caused no splash, made no ripples. It was as if the bird had become one with the water, rather than sinking beneath its surface.”
The rain heron makes explicit what to the alienated children of capitalism has often been hidden, too implicit to see in our urban worlds, and these were the most delightful parts of the book for me. They are what I most thirst for. The rain heron is a bird that looks just like a heron, only bigger, only bluer, only made out of rain. An elemental made manifest. Like Life Itself. When a young boy tries to grab it, he feels “no feathers – only a sensation of cold liquid, of wetness, of running ice”. The bird sends heat upon the land of those who try to harness her, pecks out their eye. But then one person finally does capture it, as humans are wont or forced to do, caging the uncageable and covering its cage with oil-soaked canvas, to trap what should be free.
The narrative focus shifts to several different characters throughout the story. But it’s the land, overlaid throughout and wrapping round the story that make this novel special. A certain mystery pervades the tale because of it, turning the world into something else other than simply something to mine, to plunder, to build shopping centres on. Not just an Insta backdrop but something alive, its own self, woven deeply into the weft and warp of all our lives. Something complex, alive, deeper than our measuring and categorising, which for most of our history has surrounded our consciousness both as mother and as fearsome destructor. And which we are now being forced to re-engage with on its own terms rather than our masturbatory visions of endless growth. Our home stretches far beyond our narrowed conceptions of linearity. William Blake described our modern thinking well: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through the.narrow chinks of his cavern.”
This book left behind it a freshness, somehow. A freshness that is the opposite of fragmented tweets and people going hungry while farmers pour out millions of wasted litres of milk to the ground in service to a machine that has never made so little sense as it does now.
The freshness comes from a deep remembrance of our connection to a world that demands our allegiance as re-rounding people reconnecting to her and letting the way we live and the stories we tell be moulded by her.
As the old system burns around us, showing its deficiencies like never before, we are going to need all the strength and beauty and sanity that comes from this connection we can get.
This was a NetGalley read and this review is also on Goodreads